Article features images courtesy of Octane Photographic

Pre-season testing is now under way, and F1 has a new look for 2017. With only eight days of testing allowed, the teams have a huge task on their hands to fully understand their new cars before the first race in Melbourne.

Badger’s Rob Watts caught up with leading motorsport technical analyst Craig Scarborough (or Scarbs as he’s commonly known) to find out what we can expect to see when the season starts in a few weeks’ time.

Rob Watts: So Craig, as pre-season testing gets underway, what will you be keeping an eye on, and should we avoid reading to much into what’s going on out on track until the second test in a few weeks’ time?

Craig Scarborough: I think it’s going to be really hard to read testing this year as there’s going to be a lot going on. Testing gets complicated because a lot of people are looking for times. You’ve got to remember that testing isn’t a qualifying session or even a free practice session. There are all sorts of jobs that the teams will be doing, and they won’t necessarily be out there looking for fast times. So if someone isn’t setting a fast time, but otherwise appears to be reliable and out on the track a lot, it doesn’t mean their car isn’t quick, they’re probably just doing other jobs.

This year the teams have to understand the aero on the cars which is majorly different, so the first week will see a lot of aero testing which tends not to invite fast times. They’ll have lots of rigs fitted to the car which means they can’t go 100%, so they’ll never set blinding times during aero testing. They’ll even sometimes ask the drivers to run the same speed along the straight – which isn’t a maximum speed; they’ll maybe want to get up to 150kph and stay at that speed along the straight – so the lap time will be completely unrepresentative.

The 2017 cars feature noticeably wider tyres and lower rear wings. Image Credit: Octane Photographic

The other work they’ll want to do during the first week of testing is to understand these new tyres. Although Pirelli have been testing with Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes – and that will have been shared with all of the teams – there’s a lot more to it as they’re just picking up someone else’s data. They’ll need to understand how to treat the tyres – do they like to be run hotter or colder, are they sensitive to temperature, do the tyres cope well with being slid – if you start to slide or lock up with the tyres from 2016, you will wreck the tyre. Pirelli thinks this won’t happen with the new tyre – they shouldn’t have the same high sensitivity and high degradation that we’ve had – but the teams need to understand all of that during testing.

It’s going to be difficult to know what program the teams are running, but they’ve got an awful lot of work to do as there are only eight days of testing this year.

Rob: The obvious thing we all look for with a rule change, is whether each team appears to have made a step forwards or slipped backwards. Is there any chance we could see a Brawn-esque performance from one of the teams?

Scarbs: You can never really tell because some people come with ideas that are completely out of the blue that no one has thought of before. The new regulations still have a lot of the old loopholes really tightly managed, but one of the things that have been opened up which the teams can start to exploit is the barge board – the area between the front wheels and side pods, next to the cockpit.

What we’re also going to find is that that it won’t just be one big panel with loads of slots, there’s going to be lots of overlapping sections, and some of these are going to go really far out alongside the edge of the floor next to the side pods. Someone’s going to come up with something very clever in that area this year, and everyone is going to want to copy it – so that’s something to keep our eye on.

Scarbs | Craig Scarborough
A new addition for 2017 is the ‘shark fin’ as seen here on the Sauber | Image Credit: Octane Photographic

Other things like shark fins and the shape of the noses – teams may change these, but they’re not big performance things. You may find that a shark fin performs better in the wind tunnel, but when the driver is out on track, he may prefer the feel of the car without one. It’s the same with the nose tips – as long it’s working with the rest of the aero, I wouldn’t expect to see teams changing from one style to another. That’s something that people focus on a lot, but shouldn’t be too worried about.

Something I’d like to keep an eye on is diffuser development. The diffusers this year are much bigger – they’re longer, taller and a little bit wider. This is where all of this extra downforce this year is going to come from, but it’s actually very hard to appreciate design differences in a diffuser. For a start, it’s black and tucked under the back of the car, so there’s stuff going on that we may not know too much about. A car may not appear to change from race to race, but they may have a fundamentally different diffuser.

Related to that, is what we call ‘rake’ – like we saw on the Red Bull last season. Over the past few years, Red Bull have tended to go more and more extreme with almost 15cms of clear air under the back of the car. What this does is put the front wing closer to the track, which makes the front wing work better, and it angles the floor and diffuser to the track at a much bigger angle, so the whole floor effectively becomes a wing.

The limiting factor to how much rake you can run is an element called the ‘the tray splitter’ underneath the car, and that’s the thing that causes the sparks that we’ve seen in the last couple of seasons. That’s been shortened this year, so with that out of the way, the teams can actually rake the car even more. The more you rake, the more downforce you get, and that’s downforce that doesn’t produce too much drag either; with these big new tyres, that is important.

Scarbs | Craig Scarborough
Teams can run with increased ‘rake’ this year, as seen on the Red Bull – Image Credit: Octane Photographic

We’ll see the teams angle the car up even more, and when you see a team like Red Bull out on track for the first time, you may be surprised just how much space there is under the back of that car.

Rob: We could see quite a competitive midfield this year, and there are already a few teams looking over their shoulder. Who do you think is at risk of sliding down the order; could it even be Ferrari once again?

Scarbs: Ferrari is perhaps the biggest question mark. Lots of the other teams are optimistic, and lots of us are optimistic for them – you can see a reason why Renault might have a resurgence, you can understand McLaren, you can understand Toro Rosso with a new Renault engine. Then you look at Ferrari, and you wonder how good a job they’ve been able to do over the winter with all the management issues that the team seem to have at the moment. Ferrari could be at risk – not just of dropping out of the top three, but potentially down as far as fourth, fifth or even further. We all would like to see Ferrari do well, it’s good for the sport, but at the moment I just don’t have the optimism that they’ll be there.

I think the other team at risk is Williams. We saw them have a strong resurgence in 2014, and they’ve kind of maintained that position, but Red Bull and Ferrari jumped into that gap between them and Mercedes. With Force India jumping into that gap as well last year,nWilliams could find it very tough this year unless they get their act together. They’ve had some change in structure – Paddy Lowe has gone there, and Pat Symonds has left – so it could be a bit of a transitional year for them. We don’t know yet how good a job they’ve done, but last year they weren’t really operating at a level we’d expect them to.

Scarbs | Craig Scarborough
Williams face increased pressure in a competitive midfield this year – Image Credit: Octane Photographic

I think the team that will lose out this year will be Sauber. They don’t have Manor behind them now, and they’re running a year-old Ferrari engine, so they could fall further behind. They’re another team in transition with changes in technical management and finance, so I think we may see Sauber propping up the back of the grid.

It’s almost impossible to predict at this stage. It could be quite tough for some teams, and if anyone has messed up their car design, it’s going to be a big problem to fight your way back through that midfield part of the grid.

Rob: Are we likely to see the same names occupying the podium this year, or could we have another year like 2012 when we saw five different teams winning races?

Scarbs: I think this year we are still only looking at consistent wins for Mercedes and Red Bull – potentially Ferrari, but that depends on the direction they have gone in. I don’t think we’ll suddenly see a team that’s made such a leap in performance that they’ll be taking wins as well, expect under really unusual circumstances. I think Mercedes and Red Bull have got a hand on both championships this year; the battle will be who’s following them up so positions fourth to tenth could be where the real fight is.

Rob: This season we’re seeing a major change to the tyres. That’s surely going to impact driving styles, and the way teams set their cars up. What impact do you think it will have on the racing this year?

Scarbs: It’s going to be really interesting if we take Pirelli at their word. We have to remember that Pirelli purposely created high-degradation tyres that lacked durability, as part of a request from the FIA. That message does get lost sometimes, as it’s not that Pirelli are making bad tyres, they’ve been asked to make tyres to a certain specification. If Pirelli can make more race-able tyres, I think it’s going to be fascinating.

Wider front and rear tyres will mean more mechanical grip this year – Image Credit: Octane Photographic

Qualifying especially could be one of the toughest tasks for a Formula One driver since the ground effect days of the early eighties. Cornering forces with full horsepower – which will be near enough 1000bhp this year – with super-sticky tyres around one lap, the drivers are going to be absolutely on the limit. Setting the car up for that one lap will mean making sacrifices to your race setup, so the teams have to decide how much they want to focus on qualifying, or do they want to set the car up to be a durable race car.

In the race, however, if these tyres are lasting, we could get some monotonous races where there isn’t enough difference between the cars because the grid has closed up. Overtaking could also be tricky because of the aerodynamics and the braking this year. In some respects, I hope the tyres provide some degree of variability, so we don’t just end up with cars following each other throughout and not being able to overtake.

Rob: Finally, if you were going to put your money on it now, who do you see as being the surprise of the season?

Scarbs: One of the surprises could be the sheer pace and competitiveness of the Red Bull team. We’ve haven’t really seen that from them for a couple of years – they’ve won races, but only really when Mercedes have had a problem. The surprise could be that the Red Bull package with the Renault engine is enough to challenge for pole positions and race wins on pure pace alone.

You can find Craig’s superb technical analysis on Twitter and Drivetribe.
Many thanks to Craig for his time.